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July 28, 2014

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SNWA general manager casts wary but hopeful eye on Lake Mead

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Steve Marcus

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is shown during an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices in Henderson, Jan. 18, 2012.

Updated Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 | 12:05 p.m.

It’s been a hectic couple of months for Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy.

In August, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a record-low discharge of water downstream from the Lake Powell reservoir.

The 10 percent cut in water supply is expected to send surface levels at Lake Mead plunging by 21 feet over the next year, potentially threatening one of the two intakes currently providing water to valley residents and businesses.

The oft-delayed third intake straw could avert the potential crisis, but the $817 million project likely won’t be finished until early 2015, leaving a narrow window and no room for delays before the dropping lake levels knock the first intake offline.

Mulroy is planning to ask the SNWA board later this month to authorize a $12.2 million emergency construction project to ensure the first intake continues working even as the lake level drops.

At the same time, debt payments for various construction projects, including the third intake, are coming due, meaning water rates likely will continue going up next year and beyond.

The Sun sat down with Mulroy to discuss the Bureau of Reclamation’s recent announcement, the status of the third intake, water rates and more:

On the record-low discharge recently announced by the Bureau of Reclamation:

It’s come a lot sooner than any of us hoped it would. I always knew it was going to happen. It was a question of when, not a question of if. My biggest hope was that it wouldn’t happen until after we had the third intake in.

On the immediate impacts dropping lake levels will have:

Our real worry is with intake No. 1. It’s an older facility, and we could lose it anywhere between 1,065 feet and 1,050 feet, we’re not sure. Lake Mead's elevation will be at 1,062 feet in April 2015, so that means we’ve got some issues (Bureau of Reclamation data issued after this interview now projects the lake will hit 1,062 in June 2015). The engineers are looking at it right now. We’re probably going to have to spend some money to ensure Intake 1 works all the way down to 1,050 feet.

On the status of the third intake construction:

It’s slated to be done by the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. Once we have our third intake in, then the issue solely becomes one of resources; it no longer becomes one of facilities. It will be the last major facility we have to build in the lake. It’s not possible to go any deeper.

On possible long-term solutions:

One of the longer-term issues that the states are looking at is: How do we augment supplies of the Colorado River?

There’s not a silver bullet. The solution is going to be a mosaic made up of various pieces. What that mosaic is going to look like, I can’t answer at this time. There are a lot of challenges that have to be overcome. What’s going to be very important is that people keep a level head and that we don’t start pointing the finger at one another in the basin because it’s a shared problem.

It’s the net result of significant climatic change that we’re all going to have to work our way through.

On plans to pipe in groundwater from other parts of Nevada:

That is Nevada’s safety net project. If there is a larger solution on the Colorado River that stabilizes that river system and adds to the available supplies, then that project won't be necessary. But if there’s not, then Nevada, for the sake of survival, has no choice but to begin the design and construction of that project.

On increasing water rates:

You have to pay for the facilities you have to build. There’s a mortgage payment coming due, and the question is: How do you pay for that? For the past 18 months, we’ve had 26 members of the public looking at our rates and charges. At this point, it looks like most of them are leaning toward stepping in the rate increase so that it is a small, minimal increase every single year. The direction they're heading is 50 percent borne through an increase in fixed charges and 50 percent borne through an increase in the commodity charge.

On the federal government’s role:

We need to start thinking differently about our water resources. The country needs a national water strategy, not a one-size-fits-all water policy, to look at water supplies the same way they look at the transportation network or the energy network.

There is a real federal nexus in the Colorado River Basin. The government has two dams that sell energy, a stewardship responsibility to the environment and a trust obligation to the Indian tribes. It would be ludicrous for the federal government to assume that users of the basin are going to pay 100 percent of the tab while it becomes the ancillary beneficiary.

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